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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Big Tobacco's toll

IN 1996, Peter Jennings led off an ABC News special by saying, ''Tonight we're going to show you how the tobacco companies continue to prosper despite the damage these things do and despite the increased pressure the companies are under from lawsuits and proposed government regulation. This is a very, very smart industry that has been turning adversity into opportunity for the last 30 years."

Last year Jennings anchored another special about Big Tobacco. After a public health professor led off by saying, ''Congress, which is essentially bought by the tobacco industry, isn't willing to act to save literally tens of millions of American lives," Jennings added, ''This is also a program about the failure of the country's public health leaders. They squandered an opportunity to save millions of lives."

Jennings lost his own life this week from lung cancer from smoking. His struggle in some ways mirrors the nation's entanglement with cigarettes. Jennings smoked for about 30 years beginning in the 1950s at age 13. He quit for 20 years, then resumed smoking after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The nation began warning Americans about the dangers of smoking in the 1960s. In the four decades since, smoking rates in the United States and the public places where smoking is allowed have declined dramatically.

But the industry is alive and well, littering the planet with illness and death. Despite the drop in the last half century, 22 percent of US high school students smoke. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that 6.4 million of US children alive today will die of a smoking-related disease. Globally, the World Health Organization predicts that deaths due to smoking will grow from a current 5 million people a year to 10 million a year by 2020. About 650 million people alive today will die from smoking.

Jennings noted that he resumed smoking because ''I was weak." He said he would try to resume his duties on ''good days." The good days never came. He prematurely relinquished his anchor spot in a nation where 5.5 million years of potential life and $92 billion of productivity are lost every year to smoking and where smoking-related health costs amount to $75.5 billion, according to the CDC.

Cigarettes remain strong precisely because tobacco CEOs shamelessly prey on the weak while landmark tobacco settlements in several states that were supposed to funnel money into prevention have been gutted by budget woes. Last month, Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, proudly announced that operating income from cigarettes increased 4 percent to $1.3 billion for the second quarter of this year. The international division of Philip Morris zoomed 38 percent to $2 billion for the quarter. Referring to sales of Marlboro in Japan, Dinny Devitre, Altria's senior vice president and chief financial officer, said, ''consumer pull is strong."

Similarly, Lorillard CEO Marty Orlowsky boasted an 11 percent increase in cigarette profits for the first half of this year over last year. Lorillard makes Newports, the nation's top-selling menthol cigarette. Newport rose to an all-time share of the domestic market. ''Lorillard outperformed the industry in terms of its shipment performance," Orlowsky said.

Over at Reynolds American, which acquired Brown & Williamson last year to merge the nation's second- and third-largest tobacco companies, CFO Dianne Neal reported a 66 percent increase in second-quarter profits from $151 million in the same period last year to $251 million this time around. ''We have achieved all of our critical one-year milestones and importantly, we are moving ahead with confidence in our vision and our road map," she said.

British American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strike and Kent and which has a 42 percent stake in Reynolds, boasted a 37 percent increase in quarterly profits. BAT chairman Jan du Pleiss called the profits ''an excellent set of results . . . we have achieved organic growth."

The ''critical milestones" and ''road map" for Camel and Kool cigarettes are critical-care units and tombstones for everyone else. Global organic growth for du Pleiss is a funeral organ at your local church. Consumer pull is strong all right, pulling Jennings off the airwaves and millions of people away from their loved ones forever. While prevention funds are drying up, campaign contributions by cigarette makers continue to mount, to nearly $55 million since 1990.

Jennings tried to show us that Big Tobacco was a very smart industry in a nation that squanders many opportunities to regulate it. His death should lead to our own road map to Capitol Hill, to force Congress to act to save millions of lives.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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